Eco-Friendly Synthetic Clothing: What it Is and How to Find It

Around 60% of the fibers used to make our clothes each year are synthetic.

These materials are often made with harmful dyes and use a lot of water and energy, which causes pollution. But, because they’re stretchy, comfortable, and cheap, they’re a common go-to choice for many clothing companies.

Luckily, there are ways to make synthetic fibers in a healthier way. This means we can still enjoy the good things about synthetics without causing as much harm to the environment.

If you want to learn how to tell the difference between good and bad synthetic fabrics, find out about companies that are doing things the right way, and discover how to make choices that are good for both you and the planet, then keep reading.

benefits of synthetic clothing

What are synthetic fabrics?

If you look at the labels on your clothing, chances are you’re probably wearing some kind of synthetic fabric. Polyester and nylon are two of the most common synthetics.

Synthetic fabrics, unlike natural fabrics like cotton or wool, are made from fossil-fuel-based materials. The synthetic solution is processed and spun into a fiber, which can then be woven into fabric and made into clothing.

While it’s easy to assume that synthetics are bad for the environment, both synthetic and natural fabrics have benefits and drawbacks, making it a more complicated story. Instead of ruling them out all together, it’s important to understand what the pros and cons actually are, and look at ways we can reduce the negatives associated with synthetics.

What are the benefits of synthetic clothing?

Synthetic fabrics are inexpensive compared to many natural fabrics, such as silk, wool, and cotton. Synthetics can also be durable, like polyester, and are generally easy to care for and wash.

Though synthetics now make up a lot of textiles, this wasn’t always the case. Synthetic fabrics came into existence around the 1930s, when nylon was popularized for women’s hosiery.

Because of their stretchiness, water resistance and low production costs, synthetics have become the first-choice material for many fashion brands and make up typical clothing items in every essential closet. Examples of where you’ll see them used include:

    • Activewear: Synthetics like nylon and polyester are flexible and can be water resistant, making them the ideal choice for workout gear.
    • Sweaters: Acrylic is a common choice to make low-cost sweaters and sweatshirts, as it is soft, lightweight, and warm.
    • Shoes and jackets: Many brands have started using vegan leathers to create items like jackets and shoes. These are made from synthetic materials as well.

What are the concerns?

Synthetics are made from fossil fuels like coal and oil. When these fuels are burned, they release a gas called nitrous oxide, which adds to global warming. Making new synthetic fabrics also uses up a lot of water and energy, which are important resources and often overused.

Another big issue is that synthetics don’t break down like natural fabrics do, as they’re basically plastic. So, when we throw them away, they stick around for a really long time – sometimes more than 200 years!

Additionally, when we wash clothes made from these fabrics, tiny pieces break off and end up in the water. These little bits, called microfibers or microplastics, are bad for sea creatures and plants. In fact, a study in 2020 estimates that there are about 14 million tons of these tiny plastic pieces in the ocean.

These microplastics also get into the soil from the water, which can hurt the growth of healthy crops.

How to Choose Sustainable Synthetic Clothing

Though synthetics can be problematic for the planet, there are options we can choose that give us all the benefits to our wardrobe while minimizing the issues.

Opt for Recycled Polyester

Recycled polyester, or rPET, is made from plastic water bottles and post-consumer waste. Not only does this minimize plastic pollution, it also means that less crude oil and raw materials are needed to make the fabric.

Polyester can be recycled multiple times, which expands the lifecycle of these materials.

Many brands have started using recycled polyester, including smaller brands like Seasalt all the way to large brands like Adidas and Patagonia.

Look for Econyl

Econly is an alternative to virgin nylon that recycles nylon from old fishing nets and turns it into new fabrics. This is a great option for everything from shoes, like Rothy’s, to athletic wear, as used by Girlfriend Collective.

Choose Eco-Friendly Semi-Synthetics

Semi-synthetics are fabrics that use a similar process to create fabrics as with synthetic fabrics, but instead of using oil, they rely on natural sources.

Bamboo is a popular option for semi-synthetics because it’s a fast-growing plant, doesn’t need fertilizers to grow, and also consumes a lot less water than crops like cotton. However, not all semi-synthetics are eco-friendly. Bamboo rayon, for example, is a common semi-synthetic that requires the use of a lot of harsh chemicals.

Bamboo lyocell is a similar fabric that uses a closed-loop system to make the fabric, meaning that less chemicals are used and wasted. Boody is one brand using this fabric to make bras and underwear that are both comfortable and sustainable.

Tencel is another eco-friendly semi-synthetic, made from wood pulp from sources like eucalyptus trees. Brands like Allbirds and LA Relaxed are using Tencel to create everything from t-shirts to leggings.

Wrapping up

While synthetic fabrics dominate the textile industry, their production comes with significant environmental drawbacks, including pollution and resource depletion. However, there are steps we can take to work around these issues without giving up synthetic clothing all together. Knowing what to look for can help you shop sustainably, both in person or online.

By choosing sustainable alternatives, we can enjoy the benefits of synthetic clothing while minimizing its negative impact on the planet. By making informed choices and supporting brands that prioritize sustainability, we contribute to a more eco-conscious fashion industry and help shape a better world.

Author Bio:

Jackie Warehime is a New York-based designer and sustainability advocate with a background in product design. She writes about sustainable design at www.jackiewarehime.com, with the goal of exploring and expanding the ethical and sustainable approaches to crafting the world we live in.

Designer Jackie Warehim on synthetic clothing


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